Lara Jackson Interview
This week I had the pleasure of speaking to Lara Jackson, a twenty-two year old zoologist and wildlife conservationist from the UK.
Like many zoologists, Lara has had a keen fascination for the animals that we share this planet with from a very young age. It was this passion and love for that natural world that led her to pursuing a career in zoology and wildlife conservation.
Having graduated from the University of Southampton in 2017 with a First Class Honours in BSc Zoology, Lara is now working towards obtaining a MRes in Wildlife Conservation on a collaborative programme run by the University of Southampton and Marwell Wildlife. This is allowing her to gain an excellent insight into the cutting-edge research that Marwell Zoo carries out.
As part of her studies, Lara has had the opportunity to travel all over the world to carry out research alongside various conservation projects. She spent six weeks in Madagascar, studying an endangered species of mouse lemur and working closely with leading experts in mouse lemur ecology and biology.
She also spent two weeks in the Chiquibul Forest Reserve in Belize, investigating the neotropical symbiotic relationship between acacia trees and the Pseudomyrmex genus of ants. Tomorrow, Lara will be jetting off on her next adventure: a ten week trip to Kenya to study black rhinos for her master’s thesis!
Having taken many similar steps in life to the ones Lara has, I was very excited to get the chance to ask her a few questions....
In your opinion, why is wildlife conservation such an important issue?
In an ideal world, we would have no need for wildlife conservation. However, the unchecked growth of the human population and our desire for consumer goods has resulted in the encroachment into large tracts of wild landscapes. Unfortunately, our activities have adversely affected many of the species that inhabit the exploited areas and now the majority of animals are experiencing severe population declines. To stand any chance at preserving the environment and the species that live there, wildlife conservation is a critical tool that needs to be implemented more widely and at a larger scale.
Wildlife conservation can be a very broad topic. But in your opinion, what’s the most important thing that we as individuals can do to help conserve our planet?
I think that the most important thing we can do is believe that we can make a difference. Recently, plastic has gained a lot of media coverage and the public is becoming increasingly aware of the problems that arise from its use. However, I know too many people with the attitude that their actions won’t make a difference, so what’s the point in trying? This is such a fallacy! Change begins from small acts which added together, result in a larger impact. YOU can make a difference!
Who was your biggest inspiration growing up?
I’ve always loved animals and so I grew up watching a myriad of programmes like Animal Hospital, Animal Park and The Deadly 60. Steve Irwin and his unparalleled enthusiasm was a huge inspiration to me, not to mention the incredible documentaries presented and narrated by Sir David Attenborough!
How has your love of animals and the natural world had an impact on your life?
Since being tiny, I have always held a keen fascination and love for all creatures. My room was plastered with animal posters, I always preferred to play outside, and my favourite day-trips were to the local farm or zoo. My love for the natural world has hugely impacted my life as it has entirely shaped my career. I have a degree in Zoology and I’m currently studying a masters in wildlife Conservation - it’s not often you can say that you love what you do.
Tell me about your time in Madagascar, what did you enjoy most about the trip?
I was lucky enough to go to Madagascar to collect data for my undergraduate dissertation and it was one of the best trips I’ve ever been on. My research investigated the personality traits of two species of mouse lemur by assessing their behavioural response to human handling. So, this involved working with the animals very closely and the hands-on approach was something I really enjoyed!
I also loved having no wifi and phone reception. I can’t tell you how refreshing it was to have a six week detox. You gain a completely different perspective of technology and it’s amazing to know that you don’t need social media to survive - something that many young people could do with learning! ;)
Lastly, it was amazing to meet so many like-minded people who feel as passionately as I do about the natural environment and the need for conservation.
Did your time in Madagascar open your eyes to any issues that you were not before aware of?
Yes definitely! It was my first trip to a third-world country and in Madagascar 80% of the population live below the poverty line. When you study a topic like wildlife conservation, it’s easy to say, “why don’t they stop cutting down the trees?” “why don’t they stop hunting the lemurs?”. When you experience and witness the levels of poverty that exist in Madagascar, you quickly realise it’s not as simple as that. The majority of Malagasy people depend on natural resources for their survival, they have no other means of generating an income or supporting their family.
It definitely made me realise that wildlife conservation is as much about humans as it is about wildlife. We need to strike a balance between protecting the remaining habitable areas for the species that naturally occur there, whilst providing resources for the well-being of the human population.
I don’t doubt that captive breeding programmes play a vital role in conservation, but do you believe that they will be sufficient in maintaining biodiversity?
Captive breeding programmes have and will become increasingly important in ensuring the persistence of a species. In fact, some species, like the Partula Snail and Przewalski Horse owe their existence to captive breeding programmes.
Maintaining genetic diversity will always raise challenges because we are limited by the number of animals we have in captivity. However, the participation of zoological institutes in the European Endangered species breeding Programme (EEP) mean that species can be managed as a larger population. Studbook managers make recommendations for which individuals should breed together based on their degree of relatedness. This maximises the genetic diversity of their offspring and therefore, the captive population. If, in the future, we can release those individuals back into the wild, high levels of genetic diversity will increase their chance of survival.
Tell me about your upcoming trip to Kenya, what do you hope to find out about black rhinos?
I’m heading to Kenya for ten weeks where I will be collecting data for my masters thesis! I will be assessing the dietary composition of black rhinos in relation to the overall browse availability within a fenced reserve. Recently the rhinos have experienced competition for browse from elephant and giraffe and considering that they’re critically endangered, it’s vital to understand their diet so that managers can ensure there are enough food resources to support a viable population!
If you could bring back one species from extinction, what would it be and why?
Hmm.. that’s a tricky one! I’ve always liked the look of Tasmanian tigers, but I also think it would be amazing to see the return of the woolly mammoth or Steller's sea cow!
What would be your ultimate dream research project?
I’m absolutely fascinated by Killer whales!! They are so incredibly intelligent, and I would love to research the development of their various hunting techniques or further our understanding of their cultural and linguistic differences.
What are your plans for the future?
At the moment I’m concentrating on completing my masters, but I’m definitely starting to think about the future and am exploring my options in further education (a PhD) or media!
Do you have any advice for someone wanting to follow your footsteps and become a conservation biologist?
Firstly, and most importantly, follow your dreams and never let anyone tell you that you can’t achieve them. Secondly, don’t be disheartened if you don’t follow the ‘typical pathway’ to conservation. There are lots of different ways to get into conservation nowadays. Explore your education options and find a course, diploma or degree that suits you, whether it’s in Animal Husbandry, Zoology or Animal Behaviour.
Thirdly, it’s all about experience! Sign up to some expeditions where you’ll gain first-hand experience in monitoring and surveying techniques whilst being immersed in local culture, living amongst the native wildlife and having a once in a lifetime adventure. Lastly, let your passion and enthusiasm drive your career - do what you love and love what you do! Good luck!
Thank you for taking the time to speak with me Lara, we wish you all the best for Kenya and your future adventures!
She also takes some stunning wildlife photos, so make sure to go follow her on Instagram: @Lara_Wildlife